The Oscars turns 95 this year and by all indications, movie fans are in for a great show. The 2023 Academy Awards has more parity than any field in recent memory. Nearly every category is stacked with amazing options, but the race for Best Actor is particularly close. One of the leading candidates for top male lead performance is Austin Butler for his portrayal of Elvis Presley.
Butler follows in the storied Hollywood tradition of the music biopic. The genre has not only been successful at the box office, but it has produced some of the best acting performances of all time. Here’s a rundown of Best Actor Oscar nominees to portray real life musicians in the last fifty years.
1. Gary Busey – The Buddy Holly Story (1978)
In his original 1978 review for The Buddy Holly Story, movie critic Roger Ebert said that the movie had a chance of being remembered “because of Gary Busey’s remarkable performance as Buddy Holly. You’ll be quietly amazed at how completely Busey gets into the character.” In addition to doing all the actual singing and guitar playing, Busey lost over 30 pounds to capture the look of the early rock star. This was the role of a lifetime for the actor, and he took full advantage of the opportunity.
His turn as Holly lifted Busey out of Hollywood obscurity into a legitimate leading man. It also garnered him his only Oscar nomination, ultimately losing to Jon Voight for Coming Home. Busey’s total encapsulation of Buddy Holly continues to earn praise from both actors and musicians for perfectly capturing the man and the performer.
2. Laurence Fishburne – What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993)
What’s Love Got to Do with It tells the story of singer Tina Turner’s early career and rise to fame. The biopic focuses on the rock icon’s highly successful yet intensely abusive relationship with husband Ike Turner. As early rock pioneer Turner, Laurence Fishburne turns in a performance that is frightening and captivating. He captures multiple facets of the man including the musical genius and the menacing tormentor.
Film scholar Janet Maslin wrote: “The brilliant, mercurial portrayal of Ike Turner by Laurence Fishburne is what elevates What’s Love Got to Do with It beyond the realm of run-of-the-mill biography.” Unfortunately for Laurence, Tom Hanks took home the 1994 Oscar for his role in Philadelphia. Fishburne would go on to star in the immensely popular Matrix films, though his role as Ike Turner remains his most heralded.
3. Jamie Foxx – Ray (2004)
The 2005 Academy Awards were a historical one for Jamie Foxx. In addition to being nominated for best supporting actor for Collateral, he won best actor for Ray. Foxx stars in the title role as the legendary Ray Charles. The film essentially documents Charles’ life story, from his tragic childhood to musical superstardom. The part seemed destined to fall to Foxx. For starters, he has a background in music. Foxx started playing piano at the age of six and remarkably, does all the piano playing in the film.
When he won the Oscar for Best Actor, Foxx beat out nominees that included Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Clint Eastwood. But perhaps his biggest honor was the personal endorsement from Ray Charles himself.
4. Joaquin Phoenix – Walk the Line (2005)
In 2005, Joaquin Phoenix took on the most demanding role of his career when he played the incomparable Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. The biopic focuses on Cash’s tumultuous personal life, covering his days as a budding rocker to his ascension as the biggest star in country music. The actor learned how to play guitar for the part and unlike Jamie Foxx a year earlier, Phoenix did his own singing.
To capture Cash’s distinctive baritone, Phoenix studied tirelessly with revered music producer T-Bone Burnett. “It was an incredible challenge” said Phoenix, but also added that he was “pleased with the outcome”. Despite his exceptional performance as Johnny Cash, Phoenix lost to Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. But like Johnny Cash himself, Phoenix enjoyed success later in life. In 2020, Phoenix won the Academy Award for best actor in Joker.
5. Rami Malek – Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Bohemian Rhapsody highlights the rise and dominance of the rock band Queen. The film centers around the group’s dynamic front man Freddie Mercury, spanning roughly from 1970 to 1991. To play the flamboyant rock icon, producers turned to American actor Rami Malek, best known for the television series Mr. Robot.
As Mercury, Malek delivers a vibrant tour de force performance. To prepare for the extensive role, Rami learned piano and took vocal performance lessons. He also enlisted the services of a movement instructor, a dance choreographer, and a dialect coach. Malek was awarded best actor for his efforts beating out the likes of Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper. Queen guitarist Brian May called Rami’s performance “incredible” and stated, “he inhabited Freddie to the point where we even started to think of him as Freddie”.
6. Austin Butler – Elvis (2022)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann, Elvis is nominated for eight Oscars at this year’s awards. The best picture nominee recounts the meteoric rise of Elvis Presley and his status as a cultural icon. It also delves into the complicated relationship between the singer and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Former Disney star Austin Butler won the title role after impressing director Luhrmann with an unsolicited audition tape.
After first watching the movie, Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ ex-wife, said Butler’s portrayal was “outstanding”. Austin has received near universal acclaim for his role as The King of Rock & Roll, including the Golden Globe for best actor in a drama. The 95th Academy Awards are slated for March 12, 2023 and Brendan Fraser is the favorite to win best actor for The Whale. However, nobody would be surprised if Butler took home the Oscar instead.
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